Something for everyone, or nothing for anyone?

It started as a good news story… DCLG issued draft Best Value guidance following Eric Pickles speech at NCVO’s annual conference saying he would take action to ensure local authorities did not cut funding to the VCS disproportionately or thoughtlessly.

This ‘right to reshape’ is something we have been lobbying for along with colleagues on DCLG’s VCS partnership board. It is intended to create breathing space in advance of cuts being made, to explore how things might be done differently with less money. The publication of draft guidance was intended to set out the government’s expectations of local authorities to adopt this approach.

So far so good.

Then I had a look at the ‘guidance’ (I use the term loosely), all two-thirds of a page (or 275 words) of it. My first thought was ‘there’s not a lot there’. In fact, what I actually thought was that it was actually missing the guidance bit. So I checked again… nope… it was right… that was it.

DCLG proudly announced in their news release that the new draft guidance would replace the 56 pages of statutory guidance relating to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. Clearly much has changed in the last year – for example the scrapping of Local Area Agreements and the Comprehensive Area Assessment – making much of the previous guidance redundant. But an unassuming sentence in the introduction to the draft guidance (which is actually longer than the guidance itself!) announced that the government plans to repeal the Duty to Involve (and the Duty to prepare a Sustainable Community Strategy). This immediately set alarm bells ringing and clearly I was not the only one to pick up on this apparently minor detail, as blogs by Davy Jones and Edward Andersson from Involve show.

When the Duty to Involve (D2I) was introduced, it had been heralded as a major step forward (and not just by a Labour government) – placing a statutory duty on public bodies to ‘inform, consult and involve’ local people in decision making. Of course it was not without its flaws – the inclusion of the phrase ‘where appropriate’ left it completely open to interpretation. But it was generally welcomed nonetheless; particularly as it was something that local authorities and their partners were to be assessed on.

Urban Forum has taken a keen interest in the Duty from the outset, seeking to raise awareness of it among community groups, and conducting a survey on perceptions towards it at the time of its introduction. We then resurveyed the same people one year on to see how people felt things had changed. The research produced some interesting findings:

There was virtually no change in levels of awareness of the Duty one year after its introduction.

Almost nine out of ten people felt their involvement made any difference

Confidence in the Duty’s ability to improve involvement had fallen significantly and the numbers that felt councillors did nothing to implement it had increased substantially.

In short, the prevailing opinion was that the Duty had not had a major impact on local participation.

So what do we do about it? Three possible responses might be; to focus on making it work better, to replace it with something else, or to just get rid of it.

The government say that they have effectively gone for the middle option – with the introduction, through the Localism Bill, of new Community Rights to Build, Buy and Challenge. However I would argue that these are very different. The community rights, whilst welcomed, are far more specific and focused on citizens or not-for-profit groups being prepared to take on responsibility for doing something. The D2I’s strength (and possibly its weakness) is in its generality – that citizens have a right to express views to inform decision making. They don’t have to want to take over a public service or buy a building, just have their say. The shift from a more general ‘have your say’ to more emphasis on actually doing things seems to go somewhat against the grain of public opinion.

Consistent polling data from Ipsos MORI shows that the number of people who want to have a say in local decisions is quite high (around 60%), compared with only one in ten who are interested in actually running services. So the change of emphasis is perhaps somewhat surprising.

There are also questions about the Duty’s relevance to Big Society and localism. Surely citizen voice and community empowerment are central themes within the government’s agenda. Isn’t that the point of the D2I? Perhaps this is a sign that when push comes to shove a laissez faire approach to regulation trumps community empowerment in policy?

Another question that ought to be asked is whether there is any evidence to show that the D2I is a significant (and costly) bureaucratic burden on public bodies. If it hasn’t greatly affected the way councils work, surely it can’t have been particularly burdensome then, can it? And if that’s the case, then why repeal it? I am unaware any evidence of significant costs associated with implementing the Duty to Involve (but if any exists I would be interested to see it).

Given that localism and Big Society will mean even more engagement with local people, how can it make sense to remove the statutory basis for involvement? I do not accept the suggestion that the statutory guidance was overly prescriptive. It sought to set out the expectations that central government had on standards of community participation by public bodies. Scrapping the guidance means we risk every single local area feeling they have to ‘reinvent’ this for themselves.

It was suggested to me privately that the decision to scrap the Duty to Involve is merely a ‘sweetener’ to local authorities in return for ‘imposing’ the Community Rights on them. If that’s the case I fear that in an attempt to offer something to everyone, we’ve ended up with nothing for anyone.


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